Robert Frost

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Robert Frost Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The most distinctive characteristic of Robert Frost’s work is elusiveness. Frost operates on so many levels that to interpret his poems confidently on a single level frequently causes the reader to misunderstand them completely. This elusiveness makes Frost one of the most interesting and continually intriguing American poets. He teaches the joys of discovering what lies beneath the veil, and readers grow to appreciate how he has cleverly masked what seems so intuitively obvious.

The veils themselves are constructed of technical devices such as symbol, rhyme, stanzation, imagery, and dramatic situation, and they are rooted in language play, which Frost uses to effect sleight-of-hand tricks. He is a magician whose devices are so artful that readers usually cannot see how he transforms one theme into another; they may be delighted with the effect, yet they cannot help wondering how they have been tricked so completely.

Because Frost’s poems operate on so many levels, it is possible for almost everyone to find his or her own beliefs about life reflected in Frost’s poetry. Optimists can argue that Frost understands the complexities of life while still affirming humanity’s ability to make creative choices that determine its future. Realists can argue that Frost is not an optimist, although, having acknowledged that doubt is more prevalent than faith, he still derives pleasure from the process of living life in the present. Skeptics can point out Frost’s irony, noting that he affirms nothing but the dualities and contradictions of life and human nature. Each type of reader has interpreted Frost correctly; one must consider all levels of Frost’s poems before being certain of any particular meaning. Because Frost writes about familiar experiences in what appears to be conversational language, the overwhelming impulse is to accept what he says at face value.

The fact that most readers seem to see their own beliefs reflected in Frost’s poetry certainly accounts for his popular success, but this point also raises some serious questions about his poetic achievement. If his poems advance no universal truths, Frost may well be accused of having no philosophy—of being too vague and complex for any clear interpretation to be derived from his works. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is only one of many examples of a poem that has been read with many contradictory interpretations. Readers have variously explained its meaning, ranging from the serenity of a snowy night to the virtues of duty to the lure of death to self-mockery. A critic who reads Frost moralistically, believing that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a lesson about keeping promises, has fallen into Frost’s trap. Readers must be exceedingly careful not to impose their own ideas on the poems or to blindly accept any interpretations.

The place to begin an explication of Frost’s poetry is with the narrative persona and dramatic situation, for it is here that Frost draws the reader into the poems and begins his illusions. Only a few of his poems have no dramatic context—most of his celebrated ones do, such as “Mending Wall,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Death of the Hired Man,” “West-Running Brook,” “Tree at My Window,” and “Two Look at Two”—and except for such very short lyrical poems as “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the dramatic context offers the surest chance of discovering Frost’s themes.

After Apple-Picking

In “After Apple-Picking,” for example, a great deal can be established about the dramatic situation, the dramatic moment, and the narrative persona. The reader knows that the narrator has been harvesting apples, perhaps in great numbers, and that he is now “done” with apple-picking. He has collected his apples in barrels, one of which remains unfilled, and the narrator speculates that there may be a few applies left unpicked, although he does not know for certain. His ladder, long and two-pointed, is...

(The entire section is 4,070 words.)